Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?
Gustav Mahler wrote these poetic words in a letter to his wife, Alma, following the first rehearsal for the Fifth Symphony’s 1904 Cologne premiere. Indeed, the new work was a bold departure from all that came before. Mahler’s first four symphonies develop out of nature and song, seamlessly blending the human voice with the orchestra and embracing programmatic associations. With the Fifth Symphony, an exhilarating new style emerges which is, at times, more icy and austere and purely orchestral. It features an explosion of complex counterpoint- multiple independent voices occurring simultaneously. Its cosmic drama is evident, but liberated from programmatic meaning. Unlike the earlier symphonies, it defies translation to a piano score. Even in terms of its harmonic scheme, the Fifth Symphony is expansive, beginning in C-sharp minor and concluding in a triumphant D major.
Mahler struggled to bring this new vision to light, revising the orchestration for three years following the first performance. In 1911, the final year of his life, Mahler commented,
I cannot understand how I could have written so much like a beginner…Clearly the routine I had acquired in the first four symphonies had deserted me altogether, as though a totally new message demanded a new technique.
The first movement opens with a solo trumpet fanfare which emerges with quiet intensity and rises to become a bold, heroic, and perhaps tragic statement. We’ve met this “character” before. It’s the same fanfare which enters briefly at the climax of the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Now taking center stage, this motive returns persistently throughout the Fifth Symphony’s first movement- a solemn, lamenting funeral march. At one point, it makes a quietly haunting entrance in the timpani. It fades into the distance in the movement’s final, chilling bars.
The Fifth Symphony is set in five movements, organized in a larger three part structure (the first two movements form Part 1, the monumental Scherzo is Part 2, and the final two movements are Part 3). At moments, the first movement erupts into furious struggle and soaring intensity. From the conflict of its opening bars, the second movement, marked “Stormy, with the utmost vehemence,” plunges us into even greater upheaval. This music is filled with violent knocks and blows, chaotic cries, mocking jeers, and other grotesquely ghoulish sounds. In the lamenting second theme, notice the “short, short, short, long” motive from the first movement, persistently repeated in the woodwinds (perhaps an allusion to the famous opening rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth). This is only one of a number of recurring themes from the opening movement, including the sudden re-emergence of the funeral march. This schizophrenic music is filled with unexpected turns and battling “personas” which seem to be pulling us from one extreme to another. In the final minutes, we arrive suddenly at a triumphant chorale in D major, surrounded by celebratory scales and flourishes. But in a cruel joke, all of this joyful celebration is cut off abruptly and we return to the darkness. The second movement ends with a ghostly drumbeat.
The Scherzo is an exhilarating, larger-than-life romp in triple meter, featuring both the lilting elegance of the waltz and the folksy, country charm of the Ländler. “Scherzo,” translating as “joke,” might suggest a lighter diversion. That isn’t what Mahler gives us. Instead, this movement, which makes up the heart of the Symphony, takes us on a series of far-flung adventures, through a furious fugue, into the lamenting solitude of the solo horn, and beyond. Each of these interlocking, conversing instrumental voices conjures up a distinctive yet indescribable persona.
The sensuous string Adagietto is the ultimate musical love letter. Listen to the way all of those lingering tones and withheld resolutions pull us into a serene world of dreamy magic. As sublime as this music is, we soon realize that it serves as an introduction for the Rondo-Finale which follows. As the final tones of the Adagietto fade away, the spell is suddenly broken by an assortment of comic voices which echo Mahler’s song, Lob des hohen Verstandes (“In praise of lofty intellect”) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This opens the door to a wild, increasingly jubilant celebration in which all of the voices of the orchestra seem to come together. Bach-like contrapuntal figures roll in waves, while the main theme of the Adagietto returns as a giddy frolic. Notice the way the four-note descending line we first hear in the bassoon in the opening forms a motivic seed for the entire movement, returning with remarkable persistence. Near the end of the movement, the ridiculous singing competition of Mahler’s song is exalted into a titanic “contest” between the horns, trombones, and trumpets. The final bars bring a triumphant return of the D major chorale, heard in the second movement, followed by an unabashed and exhilarating charge to the end.
Here is a recording I grew up with- Sir Georg Solti’s performance with the Chicago Symphony:
Five Great Recordings
- Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1970 studio recording) Amazon
- Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (2004 live performance)
- Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Amazon
- Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic
- Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony